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Ike damage ‘worse than Katrina’

Nearly 30,000 still in shelters as officials work to improve immediate aid distribution and plan long-term response

BY PJ HELLER | GALVESTON, Texas | September 17, 2008

"In some ways, Hurricane Ike may be worse than Katrina"

—Jerry Klassen, Mennonite Disaster Service

Residents got the first glimpse Tuesday of what was left of their homes here after Hurricane Ike decimated parts of the Texas coast. Elsewhere, nearly 30,000 evacuees remained in shelters amid reports of supplies, including food, water, ice and tarps to cover damaged roofs, being slow to arrive.

Government officials also announced that it could be weeks before residents are allowed to return to their homes. Power was slowly being restored, but electricity to an estimated 550,000 to 1.1 million CenterPoint Energy customers was not expected to be back on until Tuesday.

"Houston . . . remains partly powered but severely crippled," noted Harvey Howell, a national response team member with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) and president of the San Antonio Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. "Response will extend for weeks."

Howell reported that infrastructure damage in at least four counties — Galveston, Chambers, Jefferson and Orange — was extensive.

"An extended sheltering operation is forecast," he said.

"In some ways, Hurricane Ike may be worse than Katrina,” noted Jerry Klassen, disaster response coordinator for Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), referring to the huge swath of destruction Ike caused when it crashed ashore Sept. 13 as a Category 2 storm.

More than 270 shelters remained opened throughout the region and the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced a transitional sheltering initiative that would allow eligible evacuees to stay in hotels or motels until they were able to return home. That program will run until Oct. 14 and could be extended, officials said.

Howell said volunteers were urgently needed to assist at both evacuee and pet shelters. However, people wanting to help in recovery operations were being urged to stay away.

Mennonite Disaster Services plans to send in generators, chainsaws and work crews from Arkansas and Missouri to help with the initial relief effort. They will be housed in Newton and Jasper, two neighboring communities northeast of Houston near the Louisiana border where the Mennonites already have project sites committed to the rebuilding from hurricanes Rita and Katrina.

Mennonite churches in these affected areas will also be helping those evacuated from Ike. “We have released funds to assist evacuees,” said Brian Pipkin, the communications coordinator for Mennonite Disaster Services.

Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) is also redeploying volunteers who have been working on long-term rebuilding from Hurricane Rita in 2005 along the Texas coastline. As Ike approached, crews from CRWRC pulled back equipment from sites in Port Arthur and Lake Charles, Louisiana. But now those same crews will be helping with their equipment to bring relief from Ike.

“We’ll be helping with that clean-up,” said Bill Adams, director of disaster relief for CRWRC.

Florence Coppola, Executive Director for National Disaster Ministries, United Church of Christ, Wider Church Ministries, said her organization plans to provide protective suits, respirators and information needed to help deal with mold during the long-term clean-up effort.

“It’s really to protect people from the physical impacts of mold,” she explained.

The Episcopal Diocese of Texas has a ministry attached to the Medical Branch of the University of Texas and a social service unit that helps the needy, both in Galveston. But until the main bridge to this barrier island community is reopened, the on-location impact will be limited.

“We can’t get in those areas,” said Carol Barnwell, the communications director for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas.

Don Cimato, a spokesperson for Domestic Disaster Response of the Episcopal Relief & Development, said his organization will provide water, food and sundries to help sustain the day to day living where there is access and then help with long-term assistance when need arises.

Meanwhile the state and FEMA are trying to improve distribution of supplies to hurricane survivors.

Some 60 "points of distribution" or PODs were operating to provide food, water and other necessities to affected residents. Twelve of those are run in Houston and Harris County by FEMA and the agency delivers to other state resource staging areas, which then delivers to the PODs. The distribution plan has come under fire after thousands of people were turned away after waiting all day for supplies.

"We have realized there have been issues with getting commodities to the PODs in the morning," said Gary Anderson, deputy assistant administrator with FEMA, who said efforts would be made Wednesday to deliver the materials earlier.

"We've got to make sure that we improve the process so that we can meet both the demand of the citizens as well as their expectations," Anderson said in an afternoon conference call. "So that's what we are continuing trying to improve."

Officials said that as of Tuesday afternoon, more than 1,322 truckloads of water and 1,161 truckloads of ice had been distributed throughout the storm-affected areas.

Seventeen deaths in Texas have been blamed on the storm; nationwide, 47 deaths have been reported.

In Galveston, residents were initially allowed to "look and leave" but the program was suspended indefinitely about six hours later due to massive traffic jams that developed, blocking emergency vehicles. Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas urged the 20,000 residents who stayed on the island to ride out the storm to leave. The city has no electricity and limited water and sewer services.

Residents on what was Bolivar Peninsula — now reported to be three islands with most of the homes destroyed — were also urged to leave. Officials were reportedly considering declaring marshal law to force about 300 residents to leave.

In what may be one of the most unusual faith-based responses to the disaster, a Baptist church in Crystal River had a lion trapped in its sanctuary. The lion, from a local zoo, was brought into the church after its owner became stranded by rising floodwaters.

-- Bond Brungard also contributed to this story.

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